Witches and Power of Knowledge in Macbeth: A New Historicist Reading
Macbeth was published during the reign of James I where there was much hysteria and fear surrounding witchcraft. Anyone practicing the act of witchery was severely punished, even subjected to death. King James was very interested in and intrigued by the subject, so much so that he published a work on it. In Shakespeare’s time, encountering the witches in the play as an audience brought out both excitement and fear.
Interestingly, a considerable amount of Macbeth’s plot surrounds around King James. The connection between him and the witches in the play goes further than mentioned above. During James’s reign, a certain witch confessed that a group of witches would be preached by the Devil to bring down the king. A lot of executions and burnings were carried out as a result of this conspiracy. This is the same conspiracy that we witness in Macbeth; the witches attempt to conspire against and bring down King Duncan, a decent king that may be signifying James I. The witches succeed in their conspiracy with brining down Duncan, but the question remains whether Macbeth is truly successful in bringing down the king or not.
He and Lady Macbeth are driven by hallucinations, guilt and eventual death. This may have been a message from William Shakespeare for the audience that conspiring against his most supportive patron would not have desirable consequences, and would only lead to doom. Him being in favor of King James is further shown in a scene where some apparitions of kings appear before Macbeth with the last one holding a mirror. Some say that in the early adaptations of this play, and with King James being in the audience, the mirror was directed towards the king so as to show that he is one of the just kings in the line of succession after the tyranny of Macbeth.
Apart from the historical and political implications, what fascinated me was the circulation of power, specifically power of knowledge in the play. The power of owning knowledge results in Macbeth changing the reality that would lead to his doom. This knowledge comes from the witches’ prophecies. They prophesize that Macbeth will be Thane, and later King, and Banquo’s children will be kings. Even if the witches are facades trying to mess with his mind, this knowledge and the power it has intensifies after the fulfillment of the first prophecy. Therefore, him and Lady Macbeth start to take it seriously and commence meddling with reality. They kill the king, Macbeth becomes king, and with the power that is rapidly corrupting him, he kills Banquo, to stop the third prophecy from coming true, eradicating any potential threat to his divine power as the king.
Later, he is shown more prophecies and apparitions, but this time he cannot do anything to change reality, and has to wait for his downfall. The witches and the apparitions they cause appear before him warn him about Macduff, saying no man born out of a woman would murder him, on top of saying that he will not be defeated until Birnim Woods move to Dunsinane Hill, which sounds absurd to him.
Macbeth, now a mad seemingly powerful man, starts to become nothing but a walking shadow, clinging to any absurd hope and action that would guarantee his power as he goes on murdering Macduff’s family. This time the power of knowledge will not be helping him, as it only makes him hyper aware of his impending doom when he finds out that Macduff was actually born through caesarean, and when he sees the forest moving to Dunsinane Hill.
The power that he possessed with the knowledge given to him by the witches, and the power to redirect reality only lead to his and Lady Macbeth’s embarrassing power loss and death.